Duterte’s critics target China relations ahead of midterm elections


Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte remains a popular figure in the country with a high approval rating, which he hopes to lend to his allies in the midterm elections in May. © Reuters
MANILA — Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s political opponents are zeroing in on his government’s dealings with China ahead of his visit to Beijing next month and crucial midterm elections in May.

Fears over a “debt trap” from Chinese loans, Filipino fishermen’s struggle in the disputed South China Sea and the president’s ties with a Chinese businessman accused of being involved in illegal drug trade have all been brought to the fore in recent days by Duterte’s critics, putting his administration on the defensive.

“The timing is that the president is due to have a state visit to Beijing next month,” Manila-based political analyst Ramon Casiple said in an interview with the Nikkei Asian Review. “It may also have something to do with the elections.”

More than 17,000 elective positions across the country will be contested on May 13, but the most consequential race is the Senate, where half of the 24 seats are up for grabs. A legislative chamber controlled by Duterte allies could enable the president to pursue drastic and controversial changes, such as the shift into a federal form of government, which would give greater autonomy to regions but could also imperil the country’s fiscal health, critics say.

Lucio Blanco Pitlo, a lecturer in the Chinese program of the Ateneo de Manila University, said China will likely loom large in election campaigns, as seen in other countries where Beijing is increasing its presence.

“The unresolved dispute in the West Philippine Sea and concerns about China’s growing influence in the country are expected to be an election issue,” Pitlo said, referring to what the Philippines calls the South China Sea.

Duterte and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Manila last November. Duterte next month will attend a forum in Beijing, where he is expected to firm up his country’s participation in China’s Belt and Road Initiative. © Reuters
Still, it remains unclear whether any of the controversies will gain enough traction to have an impact on the outcome of the elections. Duterte remains a popular figure with a high approval rating, which he hopes to lend to his allies in the midterm polls. His campaign against crime and illegal drugs, which has led to thousands of deaths, drives his strong public support despite domestic and international condemnation.

But on March 24, a fired senior police officer accused former presidential adviser Michael Yang, a Chinese citizen, of being involved in the narcotics trade. The officer, Eduardo Acierto, said his superiors did not follow up on his 2017 report on Yang.

Police and drug enforcement officials denied the claims by Acierto, who was dismissed last year for his alleged role in drug smuggling.

Despite the accusation, Casiple does not expect the president’s popularity — he has a 60% approval rating — to take a hit. “These are all just [negative] publicity,” he said. “I think he will survive, there is no doubt about it.”

The president is scheduled to attend next month’s Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in Beijing, where he is expected to firm up the Philippines’ participation in China’s massive infrastructure program. His trip comes amid concerns at home that national assets are being used as collateral for loans from China.

Philippine Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonio Carpio, speaking at a university forum in Manila on March 22, flagged a provision in the loan agreement for the $62 million Chico River irrigation project which, according to Carpio, could allow Beijing to take over assets like the Reed Bank, a disputed area in the South China Sea that is thought to be rich in oil and gas.

“In case of default by the Philippines in repayment of the loan, China can seize, to satisfy any arbitral award in favor of China, ‘patrimonial assets and assets dedicated to commercial use’ of the Philippine government,” Carpio was quoted by ABS-CBN News as saying.

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad also recently warned Manila about becoming too indebted to Beijing.

Finance Undersecretary Bayani Agabin dismissed fears over possible default, arguing that loan payments are factored into the country’s annual budget.

“The Department of Finance challenges critics to look and study the Philippines’ credit history,” Agabin said at a news conference this past week. “If you look at it, we’ve never had a history where we renege on our obligations, even during the most difficult times.”

Speaking at an economic conference in Manila on Friday, Chinese Embassy Counsellor Jin Yuan slammed “Chinese debt trap” concerns as “nonsense, meaningless.”

Meanwhile, the government over the past week said it would speed a process to tax foreign online casino workers in the Philippines, a move seen as addressing backlash against the country’s rising number of Chinese workers. The administration has been criticized by lawmakers and others over its loose immigration policy.